They say there’s a “magic” to Studio Ghibli. Everyone seems to remember the films with the most fantastic imagery, the most flawless animation, the grandest of visual output. People remember Howl’s Moving Castle and Spirited Away without even remembering them; they were just that amazing and memorable. Using this blissful creativity gives the legendary animation studio a crutch to lean on when their stories aren’t always the most complex, logical, or even interesting. While arguing that people only see a “magic” surrounding Ghibli films because they overemphasize the visual aspect is not an argument I would make, it is something I think I’ve unconsciously accepted with my spotty track record with the studio. To consider the films I’ve seen “overrated” would be an understatement—especially when people hail them as some of the greatest films to ever exist.
For those keeping score at home, I gave Spirited Away a five, Howl’s Moving Castle a 6.5, Kiki’s Delivery Service a six, and Princess Mononoke an eight. Generally positive scores, but far and away outside the range of “Greatest films of all time.”
I had never heard of Kurenai no Buta until I discovered it a year or two ago browsing random anime films on MyAnimeList. Something about it seems so un-Ghibli that I couldn’t help but want to watch it. Synopsis alone gives it the impression of an experimental film, casting aside the fantastical for a more grounded (ironic wording, yes) approach to presenting the “magic.” It’s also strangely not-Japanese, taking place in Europe with characters who are probably not Asian (in anime, you can never tell). I’ve wanted to expand my palette of Ghibli films, and Kurenai no Buta had been on my plan-to-watch list for some time. The time was right.
I liked Princess Mononoke a lot, but Kurenai no Buta took the crown for my personal favorite Ghibli film.
I felt the magic, but the magic wasn’t in the setting or the visuals (though they weren’t completely ineffective). It was the characters, which may be the true key to magic in stories, at least to me. I didn’t care for the female lead in Spirited Away, which may have dragged down my enjoyment of that film. I thought the female lead in Kiki’s Delivery Service was a little better, but the plot to that felt too artificial. Pigboy in Kurenai no Buta is the Ghibli-character MVP. He’s an immensely interesting character without really doing anything! He lets his actions do the talking (or other people). He makes the plot what it is, and his background history is up to interpretation—I love me some thinkin’ food! It’s not just him, either—I adored the female comrade he gains about halfway through the film. I adore her spirit and her innocence; she, too, lets her results do the talking (though she talks much more than pigboy). Her curiosity for adventure and the naivety to the real world is so refreshing in a cryptically “fascist” (key word) society. I liked the characters and found the story interesting (though simple): something hard-pressed for me to get with Ghibli films.
More than that, I found the progression of the story to be a little off-the-walls. With other films by Ghibli, I can feel the straightforwardness of the plot, this building tension that eventually erupts in a final battle or conflict or whatever else—which has been the norm among the films I’ve seen. Here, everything almost feels spontaneous, like the events that occur are only brought about by circumstance, rather than precise planning. It gives confidence to the aspect of realism, which generally strings together events through cause and effect; not as a straight line, but a bell curve that flows left-to-right, or up-and-down, with downtime in-between. Fantastic as it already is with the inclusion of a piggy protagonist, this feels like the most realistic interpretation of the world as I’ve seen Ghibli provide. It’s charming.
Unfortunately, it’s still somewhat lacking in its development of more complex characters. Pigboy absolutely is, but his teenage female comrade is more of a surface-level-interesting character. And then there’s a woman with a history with Pigboy who harbors feelings for him—only explained through a single flashback scene where the two are very young and are flying upon a river under a breath-taking sky. Her entire purpose is to be a plot device further delving into Pigboy’s thought process and moral constitution… otherwise she’s a woman who only lives for the attention of a man. Real interesting. Tone also fluctuates wildly, with characters who initially seem dangerous and threatening becoming the primary source of comedy for the sake of comedy. Cool, I guess? Makes all the tension feel a little ridiculous, though maybe that’s the point?
Thankfully, I really liked it. I may have thrown in the towel with Studio Ghibli if I came out of this with another <7 score. Some of the most painful experiences when dealing with stories in general are the ones that are just on the cusp of greatness, but always fall short in a crucial aspect or gets too ahead of itself. Kurenai no Buta feels a tad underwhelming considering its ending and short runtime, but what it does manage to accomplish is something I would easily recommend to any fan of anime or movies.
Final Score: 8/10
The rating for all other films can be found at Letterboxd.
For more, check out the March of the Movies Archive!